By Dalton Ross
October 30, 2019 at 09:00 PM EDT
Robert Voets/CBS
S39 E6
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I was this close. This close to obliterating Aaron in this week’s recap. This close to calling him one of the worst Survivor players ever. This close to comparing the idiotic move of flipping with the numbers to John Cochran’s ill-fated decision to swap sides rather than pick rocks back in Survivor: South Pacific, thereby guaranteeing Cochran would not be sent out of the game, while also guaranteeing that he would not win it.

Man, I was soooooo close. I was already sharpening my Ginsu knife collection in anticipation of the slicing, dicing, and skewering that was going to take place over the course of 3,500 words, while feeling only mildly bad about doing it to a dude who is cool enough to wear adorable socks with his son’s face on them. Here Aaron was telling us that even though his alliance now had a 4-3 vote advantage thanks to Elaine’s vote block, he still was going to take Elaine out and flip sides. Oh, God was I ready to pounce.

And then he didn’t. Even though Aaron began the episode by telling Jason, “I am going to pledge my loyalty to you and if you want one of my girls out at vote time, then it’s time to cut one of them.” Even though Aaron was whispering with the Vokai folks at Tribal Council. Even though Aaron told Tommy “we’re good” after the votes had already been cast so there was no reason whatsoever to lie. Even through all of that, in the end, he stuck with the numbers advantage and sent Jason home. Honestly, if he hadn’t, he would have been a crazy person.

But let’s look at the other scenario that could have presented itself had Elaine not accepted Boston Rob’s offer before she even knew what the offer ever was. Let’s say that she never got the vote block and it had been deadlocked 4-4. We saw three of the four original Lairo — Aaron, Missy, and Elizabeth — all say they would not go to rocks. Meanwhile, every single member of the original Vokai was ready to draw rocks without hesitation.

That is so much more of a winner’s mentality. Ultimately, it came down to this: Lairo was playing to not get voted out while Vokai was playing to win. Lairo was playing scared, while Vokai embraced the risk that comes with reward, recognizing that big bold strokes are ultimately rewarded at the end over players that are perceived as playing it safe. Jason, Tommy, Dan, and Lauren — Jason especially — lost this round because of the advantage, and sometimes Survivor just totally screws you over like that. That blows. But I still love the unified front they showed while thinking they were deadlocked. They were like Kevin Bacon playing a game of tractor chicken against the local stud in a town in which it is illegal to dance. And they sure as hell weren’t about to blink first. Forget “Let’s Hear It for the Boy.” More like “Let’s Hear It for the Vokai!”

It is that Vokai strength that almost caused Aaron to flip, even though his tribe ended up with the numbers, as he believed Vokai would still have the numbers advantage at the merge and he wanted to hitch his wagon to that train. But that tribe strength and loyalty also tells you the chance of Vokai ever fully accepting Aaron as anything more than a convenient number to have in their pocket while they needed him were slim at best. It’s a lesson Cochran learned the hard way in South Pacific. Thankfully for Aaron, he did not completely self-sabotage his own game in the process. But man, we could have had some serious fun if he did. Oh well, maybe next week.

The good news is no one will block you from reading this recap, so let’s get into all the other odds and ends from this week’s episode of Survivor: Island of the Idols.

A lesson learned
The action on the Lairo beach begins with Noura hatching a plan. Now that the old Vokai has a 5-2 numbers advantage, she wants to use Dean and Karishma to start taking shots at Jamal and Jack. Just one problem: Noura is cuckoo for Cocoa-Puffs. Don’t take my word for it. Just ask Dean. “Nora has a plan,” says the boyfriend of Kelle’s business school classmate. “The problem is that Noura is absolutely crazy. And I think a little bit delusional.”

Not wanting to align with Looney Tunes, Dean immediately runs back and tattles to Jamal about Noura wanting him out. Hey, what happened to snitches get stitches? I guess on Survivor it’s more like snitches get shirtless confessional interviews with perfectly coiffed hair. In any event, that’s not the most interesting thing to happen on Lairo. The most interesting thing to happen on Lairo has nothing to do with the game.

Last week, we got a great human moment you don’t normally see on reality television when Karishma talked about the tradition (and sometimes struggle) of being in an arranged marriage. This week we get a scene that starts off familiar but then becomes something else entirely. Jamal begins by showing off his African drumming and dancing skills and everyone seems happy. What could possibly go wrong?

But then Jack asks Jamal to move the pot from the fire, and instead of asking him to do it using his buff, and he asks him to use his “durag.” I’m sure there is a huge portion of the viewing audience that watched that and said, “What’s the big deal?” And for that audience, Jamal explains it — talking about how a lot of people in white America have a stereotypical image of black men as thug dead-beat dads who leach on social services, and the visual that goes with that image are men with tattoos, wife-beaters (a term we should retire at this point), and durags.

Jamal is so smart talking about this, clearly laying out why what Jack said could be hurtful to a person of color. He wasn’t pissed, but he was disappointed, especially because the words were coming from his biggest ally in the game. Often in the past when we have seen racial strife on the show, it has come between people at odds. In Survivor: Samoa, Ben referred to his rival Yasmin as “ghetto trash,” which then led to more arguments with Jaison. In Survivor Nicaragua, Phillip took offense when Steve called him crazy, taking it as a racist comment which had to then be settled by Jeff Probst at Tribal Council in what would be one of the host’s best moments.

But what makes this Jamal and Jack situation so interesting is that they are not at odds. They are not only strategic partners but have also seemed to get along personally. And perhaps because of that, what could have turned into an ugly situation instead turns into a teachable moment. “White straight men have a really long way to go when it comes to self-awareness about their privilege in this world,” Jamal tells Jack, and not with malice, but in a genuine attempt to open his ally’s eyes to social inequalities. And Jack does not get defensive when called out on his comments but rather absorbs the insight and information Jamal is sharing with him.

In the end, the scene does not tear the pair apart but may have even drawn them closer, with Jamal telling us how much Jack’s apology meant to him. “I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.” And we viewers should remember this moment. One of the hooks when Survivor first went on the air 19 years ago was the question of “What happens when you drop a bunch of strangers on an island together?” This was an excellent answer to that question and you have to deeply respect the way both of the central figures here handled it. Hell, I thought Jamal would be the dude I would just make fun of all-season for taking a nap before Tribal Council, but then he goes and does this? Well played, sir.

Target practice
Look, you know the deal. We made a pact about four years ago, you and I. And the pact was this: If there was ever a challenge that involved hitting a target, I was going to humiliate Stephen Fishbach all over again by posting the video of him hitting… the other team’s target! Honestly, if it were up to me, I would be posting the video every single week but you preached restraint and this is the best I could do. So, ladies and gentlemen, in honor of the greatest moment in Survivor history, I present Fishbach scoring for the wrong team in an immunity challenge.

Man, that’s the stuff. I could watch that all day. And on some days, I actually do! So good. Unfortunately, no such shenanigans occur in this week’s reward challenge. The tribes need to transport a sled loaded with sandbags and a tribe member down a track and through a series of obstacles, get a key, unlock a slingshot, and then use said slingshot to knock down three targets. The winners get to murder and eat chickens. Vokai has an extra member so elects to sit Elaine out and we’ll get to that in a minute.

It’s a cool challenge. In fact, this entire season has been very strong on challenges. Some we’ve seen before, others are new. It’s proved to be a solid mix. You know what? Screw it. Let’s watch the Fishbach video again. I can’t help myself!

Anyway, the challenge is pretty much dead even the entire way until Aaron smokes Jack in the target shooting portion to give Vokai the win. Of course, we knew Vokai was going to win because the musical cue gave away that Aaron was going to win based on the music as he attempted his final shot. This is one of the annoying things about being a Survivor obsessive and having watched over 500 episodes of the show. You learn the beats and rhythms of the show, and as the Miami Sound Machine once warned — the rhythm is gonna get you. Well, it got me here, once again tipping off the winning shot.

A lesson so nice he had to teach it twice
So when the Vokai tribe elected to kick Elaine out of the challenge, they did not realize they were kicking her all the way to Island of the Idols. Before she gets there, however, we get to see what has to be the biggest, craziest shelter in Survivor history. Apparently bored with playing Coconut Drop and singing “Plane Day,” Rob and Sandra have spent their spare time building the raddest shelter this side of the “Older Men” tribe on Survivor: Panama. Apparently, the mansionesque size is necessary because Sandra snores at night. That’s fine. I snored my way through all of Survivor: Nicaragua, so fair is fair.

Elaine shows up and is told, “Your lesson is about having the courage to be daring.” Wait, what?!? That sounds suspiciously close to Vince’s lesson from a few weeks ago when he was told it was “about staying calm under pressure.” The jargon and vernacular may change slightly but the basic gist — do something right in front of other players and hope they don’t notice — feels like a rerun. And both “lessons” also can’t help but feel eerily familiar to a chapter from The Boston Rob® Rulebook: Strategies for Life titled “Stay Cool.” The chapter — which begins next to pictures of the author as a youth playing little league and ice hockey — talks about how, “In the heat of competition, the pressure can be intense.” In this week’s excerpt from the book, Boston Rob tells us how to handle that pressure:

“Maintaining your composure can be hard when things are going haywire and it seems like everyone’s against you. But if you want to succeed in high-pressure situations, you’re going to have to stay cool, keep your focus, and rise to the occasion. So take a deep breath, focus on the task at hand, and be confident that you can meet whatever challenge you face. Unless that challenge is me. Then, of course, you have no chance.”

Too bad nobody told Elizabeth that before her visit earlier this season. Anyhoo, Sandra releases sand from a bottle and Elaine is told she has until the sand runs out to decide whether she wants to accept the test. But she doesn’t need that time because she accepts the test before even knowing what it is! Who the hell does she think she is, Noura? In fact, outside of the slightest hesitation from Kellee, every single player has eagerly accepted the tests at Island of the Idols — all without ever negotiating for a better deal and often without even knowing what the test is.

I’ve expressed that I think part of the reason for that is how starstruck the contestants are. Similar to the way players will often say things against their best interest at Tribal Council because they want to please Probst (who will absolutely HAMMER contestants if they don’t give him something to work with), these season 39 newbies don’t want to disappoint Boston Rob and Sandra. You can see it on their faces and hear it in their voices. They’re getting swept up in it.

By the way, I’m not suggesting that they shouldn’t take the tests. Outside of Elizabeth trying to beat Rob in a fire competition, they have all been pretty easy (or, in Noura’s case, worth trying if you had a clue on how to execute it better). And here’s the thing about this week’s “daring” challenge of having to retrieve a blocked vote advantage at the next immunity challenge: It’s actually kind of simple, and I speak from experience.

As longtime readers know, I was pushing for years for producers to start hiding immunity idols at challenges. Only those bastards would never listen to me. Then, when I was out on location for Survivor: Cambodia — Second Chance, Jeff Probst pulled me aside before an immunity challenge test run that I was going to be a part of along with other members of the press. He told me they were finally going to do it and start hiding idols at challenges, that this was the very first one, and since it was my idea, he wanted me to try to nab it.

I was honesty more excited than I have ever been in my entire life, and that includes my wedding day and the birth of my two children. Here’s the thing, though. Some of the other press members on my team — chiefly Josh Wigler and Gordon Holmes — knew there was an idol hidden somewhere and that I was going for it. But once the competition started, they were so focused on winning that they completely forgot about my side mission and didn’t even notice when I pocketed it at the top of an A-Frame. (By the way, this was the second immunity challenge of the season, but nobody on the show found the clue so the idol was never placed on the actual show.)

The point is, even with a few people knowing there was an idol hidden on the course, nobody even came close to noticing me grabbing it, which shows you why nobody on the show — having no inside knowledge of a hidden idol or advantage — has ever caught anyone. EVER. As we would see later, Elaine was so clumsy retrieving her vote block advantage, even dropping it on the ground at one point and having to go get it again, and it still didn’t matter.

I’ve done about 20 Survivor challenges over the years and can attest to the fact that everyone is hyper-focused on their own role during the contests. If you are climbing over something, or undoing knots, or shooting baskets… whatever it is you are doing, that has 100 percent of your attention. Bottom line: Getting an idol or advantage at a challenge is easy, and the fact nobody has ever been caught doing it attests to that.

There’s also this: Who cares if someone sees Elaine get it? Because it is not an idol but a vote block advantage that must be revealed before the voting anyway, it doesn’t matter if she is spotted. The Island of the Idols rules stated that Elaine would lose her vote if she was unable to retrieve the advantage (“If you fail to grab the advantage, there is a consequence — you will lose your vote”), but the rules said nothing about a penalty if she was spotted doing it. Sure, ideally you keep it under wraps so you can drop a dramatic bombshell at Tribal, but if you are caught, so what?

So yes, Elaine gets her advantage, which comes in handy as Vokai loses their big immunity challenge lead while attempting to land five balls in five targets. (Props yet again to the Survivor challenge team for another rad contest. Loved watching the teams have to dig under the bamboo cage and then carry it along to different spots. Very cool.) That means Elaine has now guaranteed safety for her alliance if she can just get them to all stick together. If.

Advantage Elaine
Back in the fall of 2005, CBS launched a procedural crime drama called Numb3rs. It started Rob Morrow and David Krumholtz and generally drove me crazy. To be clear, I never watched a single one of the 116 episodes that aired over 6 seasons. I just could not get over the fact that they substituted the number 3 for the letter “e” in the title. It’s actually pretty clever. I don’t know what my problem was. I mean, that particular problem. I have a lot of problems.

In any event, Elaine’s block a vote gave the former Lairo foursome the advantage. “I’m gonna play the hero and ride in on my stallion and save the day for my peeps,” she crowed. While I’m not going to hammer anyone on the Vokai side of this seeing as how there really was not a whole hell of a lot they could do, Lauren’s comment that “I don’t think Elaine is smart enough to have an idol” while telling us how Elaine does not possess the strategic prowess does seem odd. Do you know how easy it is to get idols in this game, Lauren? Pretty freakin’ easy. Plus, she LITERALLY JUST CAME BACK FROM A PLACE CALLED ISLAND OF THE IDOLS!!!

Speaking of which, Dan apparently hates Phillip Sheppard with a passion and has taken it upon himself to launch the least covert idol-fact-finding-mission in history and one which would make Stealth R Us cringe in embarrassment. Both the camera and Missy catch the Danimal basically feeling up the Lairo tribe members’ bags in the hopes of discovering whether they have an idol. First, he’s getting handsy with Kellee, and now he’s resorted to molesting people’s bags? Has he no shame?

We finally head to Tribal Council, where Boston Rob notes from his hot box that Tommy is selling Kool-Aid. Somewhere in rural Georgia, this immediately sends Rick Devens into a fit of rage that someone else has co-opted his infamous Kool-Aid Man impersonation for their own nefarious means. But all the original Vokai tough talk dissipates after Elaine reveals her vote-block and that she is using it on Jason.

And then the scrambling begins. Aaron starts whispering to Missy. All the original Vokai start whispering to each other. And then something truly incredible happens. The most incredible thing in the history of incredible things. Tommy and Dan walk over and start whispering… to Jason. That’s right, to Jason WHO DOES NOT EVEN HAVE A VOTE!!!

I know, I know. They could be conferring with him on whom they were voting for and they also could have been trying to fool the Lairo folks into thinking Jason had an idol. But still, it was funny. Just let me have this moment, dammit. Let me have it or I’m going to start posting Fishbach videos again. You know what? Screw it. Here it is.

In the end, Aaron stays true, leading the ousted Jason to deliver a parting shot: “Hey, don’t trust Aaron.” Point taken, but is there really anyone you should trust in this game? Plus, if you’re Aaron, you should be able to explain away your deceit pretty easily. You just say something along the lines of “Look, I was totally ready to jump ship and join you all. I was doing that so we didn’t have to pick rocks, which helped all of us. But her getting that advantage changed everything. I hope you all can understand. Ask yourself what you would have done in the same position.”

I’m not saying the three remaining Vokai people will like that explanation, but they should at least be able to understand it. Anyone with a logical brain should, but I suppose we’ll have to wait until next week to find out if Buttercup Tommy is indeed able to suck it up.

In the meantime, I’ve got some goodies for you all to suck up. Goodies like an exclusive deleted scene from the episode, which you can watch above. Goodies like my weekly interview with Hostmaster General Jeff Probst. Goodies like my exit interview with Jason, which is now live and also will air on EW Live (SiriusXM, channel 109, 2-4 p.m. ET). And for more Survivor scoop, just follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

But now it’s your turn. What do you think of Aaron almost taking out Elaine, even with the advantage? Who’s playing the best game so far? And what sort of variation of “do something daring” will Boston Rob use for his test next week? Hit the message boards to weigh in and I’ll be back next week with another scoop of the crispy.

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